Scrub Hub: What can I do with my leftover jack-o'-lanterns, pumpkins?

Spooky season unfortunately is wrapping up and jack-o'-lanterns, and pumpkins across Indiana will soon be losing decorative ground against tinsel and boughs of holly.

Once all the candy is passed out and the last flames of the jack-o'-lantern candles are extinguished, we wanted to create a Halloween-themed article for this edition of Scrub Hub.

So we took to the experts and posed the question: What’s the best way to reuse or recycle jack-o'-lanterns and pumpkins?

While pumpkins are not the main culprit, food loss and waste in the U.S. is estimated to produce 170 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, which is equivalent to about 42 coal-fired plants, according to a 2021 U.S. EPA report. (https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2022/01/24/food-waste-and-its-links-greenhouse-gases-and-climate-change.) Food waste also produces “significant” methane emissions in land fills.

Newfields hosted 10,000 pumpkins for its inaugural Harvest festival in 2019.
Newfields hosted 10,000 pumpkins for its inaugural Harvest festival in 2019.

“Reducing and preventing food waste can increase food security, foster productivity and economic efficiency, promote resource and energy conservation, and address climate change, which in turn, could also decrease climate change-related shocks to the supply chain,” Jean Buzby, food loss and waste liaison for the USDA wrote about the EPA report.

So what can Hoosiers do with those leftover jack-o'-lanterns?

The Short Answer: compost your old jack-o'-lanterns. Here's how.

Melissa Moran, director of community programs at The Nature Conservancy’s Indiana chapter, said there are a couple approaches people can take to dispose of pumpkins properly. The most obvious is composting.

Food waste, such as pumpkins, can add the remaining nutrients in the pumpkin into the soil.

“It decomposes and makes a nice, rich soil for the spring,” Moran said.

She suggested chopping the jack-o'-lantern or pumpkin into pieces and putting it in a compost area or garden, then covering it with leaves so those nutrients stay in the soil.

“Some people leave pumpkins out entirely and have volunteer pumpkin plants, then maybe have pumpkins for next year,” Moran said. “Squash plants have blooms that attract pollinators, but they might not be as valuable as native flowers.”

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If you’re unable to compost, there are services in Indy that can pick up compostable material.

Green with Indy, Earth Mama Compost, Castaway Compost and Indy Go Green are all local options for composting residents can take advantage of.

The Indianapolis Office of Sustainability has resources on the city-county website on how to start composting and how to reach out to commercial composters nearby.

The Long Answer: make a 'snack-o'-lantern' for wildlife out of Halloween pumpkins.

The National Wildlife Federation came up with a creative way to help feed birds and squirrels: turn the jack-o'-lanterns into a “snack-o'-lantern.”

Using a firm pumpkin that’s mostly still fresh, cut the pumpkin in half horizontally and hollow out the top and bottom. Make holes in the two halves so you can string some rope or twine through and hang the pumpkin half on a tree limb. Then, just fill with seed.

If you didn’t cook all the pumpkin seeds for yourself, you can share them with the birds.

“For the birders: some people will clean out the pumpkin seeds and toast them and feed them to the birds,” Moran said. “If you do, don’t add seasoning or anything. You can toast them and put them out and some birds, like cardinals, like bigger seeds.”

Just sprinkle the seeds outside or put them in a platform feeder. Better yet, if you made the snack-o-lantern, add them there.

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While it’s often advised to not feed wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation says it’s OK to make a once-a-year treat with those pumpkins. The group advises to NOT do this if it might attract bears or nuisance critters such as rats. Just cut the pumpkin into small pieces as scatter them outside for the birds, squirrels, foxes and deer.

“A lot of people enjoy watching wildlife,” Moran said. “Just know you might attract them if you do that intentionally. Squirrels seem to find their way into a pumpkin no matter what. Squirrels seem to have no discrimination.”

So as the sugar rush from too many treats wears off, consider keeping your pumpkins out of the trash and instead maybe try one of these tricks.

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at karl.schneider@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Halloween: Compost, reuse leftover pumpkins, jack o lanterns